The Weeds is a semiweekly podcast from Vox usually hosted by Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. It is hands down one of my favorite podcasts.
But, like a star-crossed lover from a 1990s Hollywood rom-com, it took several dramatic turns for me to discover my true feelings.
For a long time, I only listened to The Weeds begrudgingly, and only when I’d exhausted all other options. But like Tom Hanks hanging around Meg Ryan, eventually I realized this was a podcast to treasure. We’ve lived happily ever after ever since.
Yes, that’s right, I’m calling The Weeds the Meg Ryan of podcasts.
What The Weeds is about
As the name suggests, The Weeds is a podcast that thrives on long-form, in-depth discussions. And, like all Vox content, it is chock-full of insightful information delivered with effortless coolness and panache.
Push past the slick vibes though and in some significant ways The Weeds resembles other politics podcasts. There are regular discussions of recent news topics, including the obligatory “emergency podcast” for important resignations or indictments.
But The Weeds feed also features entire episodes devoted to policy. These include analyses of current issues-of-note like the opioid crisis, and also important but infrequently-discussed topics like the rate of unsolved homicides in America, or the benefits of parental leave. This second type of episode almost always features a recently published white paper (or two) that listeners will almost certainly hear about nowhere else.
Why I initially didn’t like The Weeds – Part 1
From the first time I listened to The Weeds I could tell there was something different about this podcast, but I had two problems that made it difficult for me to be a regular listener.
One is the unabashed utilitarian pragmatism that forms the basis of all discussions. The job of the state, according to those in Weeds-land, is to solve society’s problems as efficiently as possible. Policies, and the morality of state actions, are judged by their ability to bring about a desired change.
Government is not treated like a panacea – Ezra, Sarah, and Matt are not shy from criticising policies that are unworkable, or acknowledging their limits. But if you prefer your political discussion to include a limited-government perspective for balance, The Weeds can be tough going.
Why I initially didn’t like The Weeds – Part 2
My second issue was much more superficial, but ultimately much harder to overcome. It was the almost blanket use of the linguistic phenomenon called the High Rising Terminal (HRT).
Also know as “rising inflection” or “uptalking,” HRT probably began in postwar California and is now spreading round the English-speaking world like a rash. You know, when someone makes a statement but ends the sentence like it is a question??
All three regular presenters on The Weeds slip into HRT from time to time, and the guest presenters often do as well. It must simply be the way everyone talks at Vox HQ in Washington.
When Matthew Yglesias indulges in an HRT, however, it puts the others to shame.
His vocal pitch can rise a full octave and a half in the middle of a compound sentence, only to fall several tones below the starting point at the finish of the final clause. It is genuinely something to behold. Or hear, rather.
HRTs are (perhaps unfairly) not generally associated with extremely intelligent, detailed discussions. Quite the reverse in fact. And yet, here was a program that brought HRTs and sophistication together. To me it seemed like a huge audio-linguistic clash, and I found it hard to cope with.
So my initial reaction to The Weeds was basically, “Sorry Meg Ryan, you’re pretty amazing and all, but I’m simply not ready yet.”
My mind is changed by Cambridge Analytica
Everything changed on March 23rd 2018. If you can remember that far back (eight-million Trump-era news cycles ago), this was at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For a solid week the listening feed of every news junkie in America was full of podcasts on no other story.
The Weeds was the only podcast to explain the scandal in a way that made sense, however. Every other podcast, at least in part, oversimplified or bought into the Cambridge Analytica scaremongering hype.
I know, I listed to all of the others. It’s what I do.
I won’t explain the finer detail of that episode here (you can listen to it on the Vox website although you have to scroll down to March 23rd) but the key thing is this: while practically every other commentator in the country was simply regurgitating the standard narrative of the Cambridge Analytical saga with slight tweaks here and there, Matthew Yglesias, and guests hosts Andrew Prokop and Dara Lind, started from scratch and stuck to the facts.
No, Cambridge Analytica was not run by evil masterminds who forced President Trump on an unsuspecting America. If the company was genuinely able to force voters to back particular candidates, they would not have first failed to help Ted Cruz get the nomination in the Republican primary.
Yes, there was a significant Facebook-data-breach scandal in the mix, but Cambridge Analytica itself was more a con than a conspiracy.
This episode was a tour de force Weeds-style. At the end of one hour, one minute, and three seconds I realized I finally understood all.
And, when it came to The Weeds, the scales finally fell from my eyes.
Listening happily ever after
Since that fateful moment in March things are very different for The Weeds and me.
I know now that even if I don’t agree with Ezra, Sarah, or Matt, I at least know their conclusions will be independent from the standard media narrative, and (invariably) backed up by reams of data.
And yes, the pro-government assumptions still feel a bit too strong for me from time to time. But I know that however utilitarian the presenters may be at heart, I can trust them to stick to what the data says in the end.
And (like a jazz listener who initially finds the impracticability perplexing and befuddling but eventually grows to appreciate and cherish the complex ingenuity of the form over time) I have grown to be a big fan of Matthew Yglesias’ voice.
When I hear the tone of Matt’s voice starting to slide around in the opening moments of a podcast, my ears prick up.
When his pitch rises to the critical point in the middle of an important sentence, I find myself eagerly waiting for the inevitable dynamic vocal payoff in the next clause.
I even look forward to the ads Matt reads mid-episode (especially the 1970s-era easy listening disco backing).
So that’s it then. The Weeds and I are destined to be together and live happily ever after.
And, if anyone’s asking, I will gladly meet Ezra, Sarah, and Matt on the Empire State Building observation deck next Valentine’s Day.